Climate change, public transport and young people

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The state of public transport across Australia is not a new story: overcrowded, underfunded, overpriced and infrequent. In the outer suburbs, public transport is completely inadequate, at times, even non-existent.

This is bad for all but has a bigger impact on young people.

Young people need independence. They need to travel to school, to work, to sports and recreation facilities, to events, and to see their friends and family.

The current restrictions on L- and P-plate drivers mean that even young people able to drive can't be independent. In New South Wales, L-plate drivers are expected to complete 120 hours of driving before applying for their P1 plates.

When they do get their P1 plates, if they are under 25, they are prohibited from driving more than one passenger under the age of 21 between 11pm and 5am. Because the public transport system is woefully inadequate and expensive, this in effect means young people are under a curfew.

Without an accessible public transport system, young people are forced to rely on their parents. For many from low socio-economic backgrounds, this is not an option.

Instead, they are highly dependent on public transport.

But in low socio-economic areas like Western Sydney, public transport is almost non-existent. In wealthy areas like North Sydney, meanwhile, public transport is widely available.

Two Griffith University studies, Shocking the Suburbs (2006) and Unsettling Suburbia (2008) found a near total lack of public transport in our cities' outer suburbs.

So, for many young people, access to public transport is based on wealth: those least able to afford other options have the least access.

Young people's independence and ability to go to and from work, school and social activities should not be based on where they live or on their parents' incomes.

The cost of using public transport, where it is available, also means it is off limits to young people with a limited or low income. Meanwhile, transit and regular police often target young people, with heavy fines for those who choose to use, but can't pay for, public transport.

Of course, public transport is an issue for all people from poor backgrounds, but it affects young people the most because many do not have the option of driving and have a limited income.

Rather than trying to increase young people's access to public transport, at the end of 2008 the NSW state Labor government tried to scrap free school travel. Strong community campaigning and public outrage meant the decision was overturned.

Public transport needs to be expanded, made more accessible and should be free. This would increase young people's independence. It would also result in fewer cars on the road and lower carbon emissions.

If young people are going to have a future, cutting carbon emissions is necessary to avert dangerous climate change. But rather than expanding the public transport system, the NSW government throws money at yet more roads.

In the June 2008 NSW budget, $2.2 billion was committed to roads, but public transport was promised only $1.8 billion. Despite rumours that the budget would include an extra $112 million for more buses to ease overcrowding, only $100,000 was committed for the 2008-09 financial year.

It's not just a NSW problem. The federal government gives the states funding that must be spent on roads, not public transport. This approach dictates states' priorities and stands in the way of real action to combat climate change.

We are facing a climate emergency and must drastically reduce our carbon emissions. Making public transport free, frequent and accessible is just one of the actions that must be taken.

If we do not move quickly to a green economy, it is young people that will face the devastating consequences of climate change. It is young people that have to be the driving force of a movement to force a change of direction.

But society tries to exclude us from the important decisions that will affect us most. Governments, corporations and government institutions hold the power, and do what they can to stop us from realising ours.

Limiting our independence with inadequate, expensive public transport is just one way they do this. Many young people wouldn't even be able to afford the bus fare to go to the politicians and express their anger in person, if a bus ran at all.